The Shoe Leather Express

Writing and Comedy from James Harris

Category: Comedy

A Cup of Tea with Mark Silcox

I assume like all comedians Mark Silcox wants above all to make people laugh. And he does; he can tell a joke, he can subvert an expectation, he looks funny. Mark Silocx has an aura of diffidence and mildness, this middle-aged chemistry supply teacher, which in and of itself can raise laughs. But his show contains something more than that; it contains a simple gesture which I would like to focus on here in more detail.

Silcox’s show ‘Helping Aamer’, a show themed around both Silcox and the audience’s attempts to send good vibes to ‘angry Australian comedian’ Aamer Rahman, ran at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. On the day I was there, there was a small but appreciative crowd present. When we entered the room one of the first things to be seen was a selection of teas and coffees piled up on a table. And this is a crucial aspect of good anti-comedy: when what is happening is minimal – in this case Silcox quietly talking about his ‘research’, not even normally holding the microphone to his lips – everything that is there becomes charged with significance. Just the sight of those stacked, dormant custard creams becomes funny to the audience member whose eyes stray over them.

Mark Silcox.

Mark Silcox.

1024px-Mug_of_Tea

A cup of tea.

At the top of the show, Silcox states that he would like to both investigate the causes of Rahman’s anger and also demonstrate that eggs could be boiled in a kettle, a process which he duly set in motion. I later received and enjoyed an egg. Good as that egg was – lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, and cut in two – I want to focus on Silcox’s offer of caffeinated beverages. After making us laugh hysterically with his own corpsing, which I later learnt to my surprise was not preplanned and had occurred as a one-off during the performance I saw, Silcox announced a tea break and took orders from the audience; whether we wanted tea, coffee, milk, sugars, a biscuit etc.

Clearly, even for a small audience, preparing a selection of beverages is a lot to ask of a single performer, so Silcox solicited the help of another audience member to assist in making the hot drinks. The audience member, from what I remember a friendly middle-aged woman, did not seem to be an obvious aficionado of either audience participation or anti-comedy, but was in fact relating to Silcox on a simple, humane level, namely as a man who needed some help in making the teas. (Often I think average audiences, as opposed to reviewers, grasp much more readily why anti-comedy is funny, rather than making such a big fuss about the reasoning behind it. Children, too, seem to instinctively both get and generate anti-comedy).

As the order was prepared the moment became profoundly funny. I think it was because of the sense that Silcox had given himself so much work to do, and that having to work so hard in this context was a form of self-deprecation; an antidote to the idea of the ‘star-making’ quality of an Edinburgh show, even an act of self-abnegation before us. He laboured over the teas, this small middle-aged man, and as he did the audience began to talk amongst ourselves; and as we did, we could occasionally look up and check on Silcox, in the corner, dipping tea bags and sweating. (Bizarrely enough, I was sat in the show next to the comedian Henning Wehn, who in almost parodically German fashion had bought his own tea bag with him). The audience was able to chat amongst ourselves, and we were also actually getting tea – and in my case a biscuit and a half, Henning having wanted only the top of a custard cream. He’s clearly a man with particulars.

Comedian Henning Wehn.

Comedian Henning Wehn.

In the context of a hectic arts festival, just chatting and having a tea seems almost like a subversive act. First of all, it is simply nice to be offered a beverage; people like tea, and to be offered it; a hot drink is something that, like children, you don’t know you want until you have. Being offered tea is in many cultures an almost sacred act of hospitality and ritual. Speaking to my friend Pete after the show he asked me, ‘Did you have a tea?’ After my replying in the affirmative Pete continued, like a man naming his inalienable rights, ‘Got to have a tea.’ This is in effect the simplest form of marketing from Silcox: Come to my show and have a free drink. I don’t think the appeal of a free drink should ever be underestimated, and I’ve lost count of the number of events I’ve reviewed to friends with the words ‘There was a free drink.’

Secondly, though, the audience has been given a space, and in that space pretty much anything can happen. What is most likely to happen, with the show being on in the afternoon, is that the audience chat to each other, and that tallies with one of my own most important realizations about performing comedy: that it is more about the audience than the performer. It is always the unique moments the audience provide which will create the abiding laughs of a performance, even if an act has actually cleverly engineered their coming into being.

Finally, and this seems to me the most radical aspect of the act: Silcox has at this moment given up control of his own show. He has taken his hands off the tiller and gone below deck to make a brew. The relationship between performer and audience is as commonly understood one of master and servants, but here is a performer abdicating captaincy of their own show and letting it drift, uncentred, standing in the corner making beverages. There is something about that absence of control – anarchy, in the purest sense – which is, in a scene oversaturated by dominant comedy performers, and indeed comedy itself, deeply appealing. It is a space for reflection which still manages to be funny.

On a final, practical, note, Silcox’s gesture is presumably going to be hard to sustain if his audience does begin to grow substantially: That is unless his entire show becomes the making of tea for large crowds. Certainly I wouldn’t begrudge him an expanded fanbase, as his is anti-comedy of a most inviting and even humble kind. The gesture of receiving that tea and having such entertaining conditions to drink it stayed with me long after the Fringe, and I’ll be back to see him next year, even if only for the egg.

Photos from

Ohsofunny.co.uk

Factorylad

Loganberry

 

 

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20 things to do in your 20s

1). Sleep with Ryan Gosling. Handsome, well-read and articulate – and you are too. There’s never going to be a better decade than your 20s to sleep with the Gos.

GifGosling

2). Put a pen up your arse. Because nothing says ‘I’m in my 20s’ more than having a biro shoved up your backside.

3). Turn 20. Because what can be more authentically 20s than actually being 20.

Jumping woman

4). Learn a language. Why not start with the language of the country you live in? Take advantage of that plastic 20s brain!

5). Visit Paris – and do a shit in the toilets at the Louvre while quietly crying to yourself. Vive la France!

Photo by Moyan Brenn under a CC-BY-2.0 license.

Photo by Moyan Brenn under a CC-BY-2.0 license.

6). Go on, right the way up there, the whole pen.

7). Your 20s is the freest time of your life. So amuse yourself and others by paying in restaurants with little notes saying ‘I’m young and you are old!’

D&D GIF

8). But your 20s is about preparing for your 30s, too. Try to decide which of your future children you would save in an eventual Sophie’s Choice style scenario.

9). Run up crippling emotional, financial and spiritual debts. You’ll have the rest of your life to pay off those bad boys!

Viaggioroutard/Flickr/Creative Commons.

Viaggioroutard/Flickr/Creative Commons.

10). Manu Picchu.

11). Spend a year answering all questions put to you in a Christopher Walken accent. Because twenties.

12). Bury a wooden chest full of doubloons to form the object of a zany but ultimately uplifting quest for your grandchildren in their 20s! Did someone say magical wacky adventure? Did someone say 20s?

13). Fight and die in World War Two. Nothing says ‘I’m in my 20s’ like making the ultimate sacrifice in this great historical conflict.

battle-of-greece-large

Courtesy of the Deutsches Bundesarchiv (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany).

14). Now bring it out to the nib.

15). Your 20s can be a time for reflection too. Spend a few months in the stomach of a giant whale, ruminating on God’s mystery and the gravity of the demands He sets upon us earthly mortals. Don’t forget to floss.

16). Feeling bold? Gently break to Pierce Brosnan how badly he’s aging. He’ll be comforted by your youthful vigour, and gracefully retire from action roles.

Pierce Brosnan GIF

17). Mother.

18) Do begin to accept your own mortality, insignificance and increasing loss of physical and intellectual capacity.

(Just kidding! Save all that for the morning of your 30th birthday. If there’s one thing that your twenties teaches you it’s that anyone over the age of 29 is an evolutionarily-redundant bumtoad!)

19). Do learn to stop putting additional pressure on yourself by setting arbitrary milestones in the form of random and meaningless lists.

Lady apple

20). What do you mean the pen is stuck?

Three poems about comedy

I.

Tonight I stood on stage in front
Of a thousand, and they laughed
For me. The cameras ran.
I celebrated the greatest triumph of my career,
A television host shook my hand.

Now I am sat in a Chinese restaurant
With my notebook open before me.
The restaurant is quiet, aside
From an old man drinking soup and
Soya sauce crossing my plate.

II.

Somehow a bad comedy evening is
Easier to bear than a poetry one;
At least you can get drunk.
Poets are so much nicer,
At times they grab each other’s shoulders
Out of pure delight.
Comedy is rougher – it takes all sorts
And has strong elements of a brawl,
Its agents are like boxing promoters
Talking their guys up.
And yet despite this roughness and
Poetry’s exquisite charm,
In the belief it makes a difference
I choose comedy.

III.

After the show

There is always one act of comedy
Who doesn’t do so well,
The gentle kid or one-time champ
Who is beginning to coast. The consolation is –
Nothing. All the faces know it,
And the only remaining option’s to be funny while you drink.

Mohammad Jangda/Creative Commons 2.0.

Mohammad Jangda/Creative Commons 2.0.

‘Getting Better Acquainted’

Isn’t it great that spring is here? I’ve had two most pleasant bike rides the last days, people are smiling, and a general mood of blowing off the cobwebs pervades London. It’s upbeat!

Happily enough, a new edition of the Getter Better Acquainted podcast has just been released on which I feature. I think it turned out very well, and we really did get into some depth, thanks in large part to the excellent interviewer Dave Pickering. (I also recommend Dave’s ‘Mansplaining Masculinity’ show here). So if you fancy hearing me talk about my Oxford years, learning languages, rebuilding my comedy career and even having a good-natured argument about Jeremy Corbyn, now’s your chance.

Enjoy the spring!

Herne Hill

A winter’s tale

I can see the young man from down the street, stood in his black woolly hat outside, and I’m smiling as I approach the bar, saying ‘Darius, right?’, and the younger guy replies, with a big smile, ‘Everyone calls me Chisel. You’re James?’

‘Yes,’ I say, ‘Good to meet you.’

‘Yeah man. You come far?’

‘Hackney.’

‘That’s far!’

‘Well, it wasn’t too bad. Let’s get out of the cold.’

We move inside the bar. It’s long, thin, spotlessly clean – called Nigel’s, it’s an American-style bar. Probably even bigger than that, because at the end of the bar is the largest drinks selection I’ve ever seen. Really; rows on shiny rows of bottles, on crystal shelves before a background of silver glass. And the selection! You’ve got a whole row of Japanese whiskies, every vodka imaginable, golden rums in tall bottles. And in front of all this the bartender, presumably Nigel, resplendent in all black with a tea towel over his shoulder. One of those men who is just the right height.

‘What do you want?’

‘A glass of tap water,’ I say.

The bartender, actually called Derek, pours me one. I look to him and smile; ‘Amazing place you’ve got here. I’ll have one of your vodkas later, but I don’t drink before gigs.’

‘We should have a few people down here later, it’s my first night running this,’ says Chisel. At the moment there is no one in the bar apart from a blonde man in a cagoule reading and looking vaguely ill.

‘Yeah – I looked on the website – Furious Mike used to run this gig right?’

‘He did. Then he gave it to me. But I don’t speak to him no more. I can’t be dealing with him, man. All that ego. How long you been gigging, anyway?’

‘Oh, a long time.’

‘Yeah? How long?’

‘Well – in London not so long.’ I can’t be bothered to tell the story; how I lived abroad for some years, how I worked professionally there, how I feel constantly chided and humiliated in having to start again. ‘I’m doing at lot at the moment though.’

‘Yeah – where’d you gig?’

‘Oh, TPT, Sorcerer, Uncle Buncle.’

‘Do you do the Cave?’

‘I do but – it’s a bringer, right. Bringers are difficult.’

A bringer show is when you have to bring a guest in order to perform, ensuring that there’s audience. It could be worse – other gigs demanded you actually paid to perform.

‘I never won the little cup there though. Do you do the Gong show? I do it man. I’ve beaten it before – I’ve got to the final. But in the final you have to do five full minutes and man, it’s hard. I want to get back there and beat the gong. But you have to do the other rounds again.’

‘It’s like a computer game,’ I say and, ‘Excuse me. I have to go to the toilet.’

‘It’s back there,’ says Derek, the bartender.

More drinks

                                     Edwin Land/Creative Commons

I move to the toilet, again spotlessly clean, and take a seat. It’s a cramped room, with the walls decorated with pictures of black icons; Obama, Martin Luther King, John Coltrane. And here I am, a pasty-white bloke from Nottingham taking a shit beneath these distinguished eyes. I take a look at my hand, which is forced right up to me, and note the cigarette burn near the knuckle. It’s hard for me to fathom now that I would deliberately damage myself like that, especially as an increasing part of my mental energy is in trying to work out I preserve my body so it fights on for a few decades more. I wipe, flush, and clean my hands.

When I return to the main bar the book reader has gone but two new men have arrived. One of them is a muscular black man in a puffer jacket and the other a long-haired, yellow-tinged man wearing what looks like fishing gear. They’re drinking, Puffer Jacket in silence and Fisherman with a big smile and enthusiastically talking to the barmaid. The staff has changed, too: Derek has been replaced by a barmaid, Sharma, tall, gamine and dressed in black.

But I’m not quite ready to join the drinking yet. I’m still holding a little bit of my brain open to the possibility that there will actually be a show tonight. I’m not too bothered; as ever after a long trip to a gig, I feel like I’ve already achieved something by getting there. Chisel sees me sitting there and says, perhaps too anxiously, ‘Don’t worry if no-one shows up man. I’ll buy you a drink.’

I’ve moved to a corner and am sitting in the chairs where the book reader had been. I reach into my comedian’s bag – shoes, an audio recorder, clean socks – and take out my notebook. And then I spend thirty minutes sitting there thinking about my life, while all the while Chisel sits at the bar on a stool, seeming to curl up, sink more into himself, seeming to manifest his self-reproach in a tangible physical form.

At five to eight I’ve waited long enough. ‘Chisel. I think I’ll have that drink now.’

It’s a quiet night and Sharma keeps walking over to the Iphone dock to skip songs she doesn’t like and as she returns, Chisel suddenly throws his arms open and flamboyantly declare, ‘Sharma – get this lad a pint!’ Sharma laughs at this, at the goofiness I guess, and moves to take a can of Guinness from the fridge. I am a little disappointed it’s not draught, but then she puts the drink in its glass on a little device which makes a whirling noise and leaves it with an authentic head. It’s pretty neat.

The long-haired American is still there, talking about his having been abroad, hitting on Sharma it’s fair to say. When she turns her back to change the song again – she doesn’t like this one – we fall into a moment together. He asks me what I do with my life, and I say, no, not comedy, no, although I’d like to. And I repeat the question to him to which he replies that he’s retired.

Retired? I can’t believe it, I say, and ask him how old he is.

‘Guess.’

I look at him; his skin looks fresh, his hair still full of colour, and not curled towards a bald spot like my good self.

‘Er – you must be at the most 50.’

’50? 50?! 50?’

‘Sorry. I only guessed 50 because it was the earliest possible age I could imagine somebody retiring at. I don’t think you look anywhere near that old. How old are you?’

‘I’m 42.’

‘What did you work in?’

‘I’m in IT. People retire really young in IT. I mean, what’s the point in paying an older guy to do it when you can get a younger guy to at half the cost. You know the game Minecraft, yeah, well the guy who made that came retired at twenty. Having already made several million dollars.’ His phone is making a quiet bleeping; he raises it to eyeshot. ‘Sorry – my wife.’

‘So you’re married?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Have kids?’

‘No.’

‘And your wife’s cool with that, she doesn’t want to have kids either?’

‘Yeah it’s fine.’

I raise a hand. ‘So you’ve retired, made money, got a beautiful wife who loves you and doesn’t want any kids. Pretty much got it worked out, haven’t you?’

‘I guess,’ says the man, looking ahead of himself. ‘Another beer!’ he shouts to Sharma who turns back smiling. ‘Do you want a beer?’ he says to me.

‘I’ll have a shot,’ I say.

‘What kind of a shot?’

‘I’ll have a vodka,’ I say.

The vodka comes and I slam it down but that’s not enough for the American – he’s told me his name by now, but I’ve forgotten it and am too embarrassed to ask again. He wants me to try the bar’s own special vodka, which has apparently, according to his hype, finished a couple of other customers off; Sharma is already slicing an orange and there’s a genuine slight uptick in interest from Chisel and Puffer Jacket.

There are now four slices of orange in front of me and a rusty-looking shot. I’ve never been very good at working out why people are doing things for me, but there we are: I neck the shot. There is some burn, mainly on the lips, but I’ve had worse. I ride out the swellings of heat and think that it’d be good to have a cool drink, at which point I look to the oranges and all becomes clear. I pop them one by one into my mouth, sucking the coolness home.

They all seem satisfied with how I dealt with the shot – I did my best to summon a suitably stoic air, which is quite easy for a deadpan comedian. The American slaps my back gently and says, ‘It’s good right? You want another?’ Apparently there’s another version, one grade hotter. I assent with a smiling nod, and the little ritual is repeated: Sharma, the oranges, and the agonizing gulp.

‘It’s good stuff,’ I say with deliberation.

‘Right? It’s cleansing right? It’s like a drug.’

‘Should I –‘

‘No, it’s fine, I’ll get this,’ says the Yank. ‘You’re family now, right?’

‘Well,’ I say, ‘I guess.’

Head on a can

delta_avi_delta/Creative Commons

The conversation continues, and the long-haired man is talking about Florida, and carnival there. One time apparently a Dutch friend had visited and gone missing and they’d found him a few days later lying in the street . Carnival in Florida was pretty crazy, apparently, though I couldn’t really imagine that. There was something in the way that the man was making a big fuss about having hung out with a group of lesbians once that seemed too forced to have any genuine craziness behind it. ‘They hunt in packs,’ says the retiree, ‘and they know how to get the best girls.’

‘It’s true, they try to turn you,’ says Sharma. ‘I have a friend who’s one and she was talking to me once, and she just put her hand on my bum, just went out and did it. I was like, Oh my days!’

Anyway, there was a way to talk about people of different sexual orientations, and this wasn’t it; it was all too on the nose.

There were other things that people like at carnival and beyond was some kind of mixture of heroin and cocaine, know as Rosewater or something, or was it Strawberry Dream, which the men keep in lockets around their necks and which apparently offers a smooth and palatable high. The long-haired man had an enthusiasm for drugs and particularly hallucinogens, which I shared to a certain extent, though I’d never graduated from mushrooms to acid despite an abiding interest in doing so. Perhaps I was stung by the memory of a young man I’d met at a New Year’s party once, sitting bug-eyed in a long-crowded room, who responded, on my asking him whether he was having a good time, ‘I don’t know.’ I didn’t like the idea of not knowing whether I was having a good time or not.

To tell the truth, drugs didn’t interest me much, and I had got to a stage in my life where I was learning that that was okay, and also, that not much interested me, really, and that like a child I could be happy just sitting there with a glass of water, staring into space. I had so much to remember.

I did like Guinness though and I was happy when Chisel elected to buy me another one as there were only a few coins in my purse. By now his body language was bordering on wretched; he was engaged in visible self-reproach. This failed comedy night, which had been entrusted to him by an established act, with whom he had also fallen out – it was all stacked up against him. But more than that, he was telling me, and as he did I suddenly felt the cold outside – more than that, he had been without a room and sleeping on friends’ couches, here and there, for a few days at a time, for over a year now. Work seemed an issue too. He’d beaten the gong, and that kept him going, but he was in trouble.

I felt sympathy for Chisel, who slumped before me, talking in a low voice and occasionally checking his phone. I went to have a bit of a chat with Puffer Jacket, whose name was actually Andrew, and as for his work, he’d been an army psychiatrist before that had been decimated by the cuts. There it came again, an intimation of the pitiless government of this country; I’d got to a stage where I realized politics were doing me more harm than good, but they were always there, these intimations. London was so hard – it was like a city made of crystal, a city freezing along its tunnels and roads, like this massive ice palace full of frozen feather beds.

Suddenly it was time to go; there was no warning, time had just run out, I was already late. Hackney was far away, and when I said I had to get back there was general agreement that I had to leave now, because the last train from Herne Hill was very soon, just after half-ten. It was already half-ten. Well, I had definitely had a good time; I looked around the lovely, personable bar, the lights a little blistered by alcohol now. Chisel was gone, but Puffer Jacket, the American and Sharma were still there, and maybe they had a few drinks to go yet. I said goodbye to them all and walked back onto the street.

I walked down the hill feeling both upbeat and a complete failure in life. It was very cold. As I came to the bottom I saw Chisel, together with another young guy; both of them were wearing wooly hats and laughing together with their heads bowed down. I disturbed them – ‘See you later!’ I called, and Chisel looked up and gave me a nice smile. As I passed them both I heard him say to his friend, ascending behind, ‘Nice guy.’

A few days later Chisel sent a message to all the acts that due to creative differences he would no longer be running the Monday night comedy at Nigel’s.

A few days later still he posted up a picture online of his hand holding an unremarkable looking brass key, laid flat upon his palm. With this he wanted to thank everyone for supporting him and keeping faith in him as he moved onto the next stage of his project. It got ninety Likes; it seemed things were finally looking up for Chisel.

Herne Hill

                                  David Howard/Creative Commons